A Scriptural case for the death penalty.
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
It is not uncommon today for even politically and theologically conservative Christians to be against, or at least uneasy, with the concept of capital punishment. On the progressive side of the aisle, it is almost unanimously assumed that enlightened people in the 21st century are past the barbaric idea of government enforced executions. Liberal Christians usually appeal to Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness to argue that a consistent Christian ethic is antithetical to putting criminals to death. First, I would like to show what I believe is the definitive scriptural position and then answer the inevitable objections that will follow.
“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man a will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5-6 ESV).
I believe for a Christian the debate is really that simple; God commanded death for those that take innocent life. Like all debates, this one can get much more complicated, but in the end it really is just this simple. A similar debate would be over the modern transgender ideology. The simple truth is that, excluding rare genetic defects, a person’s gender is the sex he or she is assigned at birth. The debate from the other side gets much more complicated to obfuscate the issue by arguing from the new claims of gender identity being separate from biological sex. However, the truth is the simple reality. Therefore, I will respond to the arguments used to obfuscate from the straightforward command of God in Genesis 9 henceforth.
Objection 1: That’s the Old Testament!
It is unfortunately predictable that if I presented Genesis 9 as my argument to someone in the modern American church, they would respond with something along the lines of, “That’s just the Old Testament! We follow Jesus and the New Testament!” I grew up within a religious tradition that viewed the Old Testament in a similar way. I remember being taught that the New Testament is what is relevant for Christians today. The Old Testament is simply history- the story of Israel before Jesus came but not of much use besides that. At best, views such as this are a vast oversimplification of the relationship of the Old Testament to the Christian, and at worst these views can be downright heretical and blasphemous as they undermine the authority of inspired Scripture. There are several aspects of the Old Testament that are relevant and authoritative to Christians today; the main example is the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments. Jesus himself did not subtract from this law but added principles to it that were misunderstood. For example, in reference to the seventh commandment Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (seventh commandment), but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Jesus had the highest view of the Old Testament Scriptures, repeatedly quoting them and saying, “It is written,” in response to theological disputes, and he certainly viewed the Old Testament of more use than simple history.
Objection 2: So, do you eat and wear mixed fabrics since the Old Testament is authoritative?
If I were to explain my above point that I believe the Old Testament is indeed morally authoritative, the next objection would be the usual objection to Christians by atheists today who do not understand the Bible. “So why do you wear mixed fabrics and eat shellfish? These are prohibited in the Old Testament books like Exodus and Leviticus.” These objections, while unfortunately common, show a biblical illiteracy to the nature of the types of law and covenants in the Old Testament. There are several covenants that God makes to the people of the OT, some of which include the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. Each of these covenants fulfil a specific role in either ordering the world or signifying and establishing the coming of the Messiah, and not all of them are equally morally binding on people today. For example, the Mosaic covenant, which was given to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt, governed how the Israelites were to act in the Promised Land. These laws were connected to earthly blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying them. Other parts of the Mosaic law are referred to as the ceremonial law, which regulated religious aspects of the sacrificial system that typified the coming of Christ who fulfilled these requirements and taught the Israelites the severity of sin and that atonement by a sacrifice was necessary. Connected to the ceremonial law are the above examples of shellfish and mixed fabrics which served to set Israel apart from the pagan nations surrounding them. There are two other types of law connected to the Mosaic covenant such as the judicial law, which governed the theocracy and expired with the nation of Israel, and the moral law or Ten Commandments, which reveal the eternal moral standards of God and are relevant for all people today. To summarize, there are three types of laws in the Mosaic covenant, some of which are still required and some of which have expired. However, the passage in Genesis 9 about the death penalty is not part of the Mosaic Covenant but the Noahic covenant.
After the events of the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants with regards to how the created order was to be governed. God set his promised seal of this covenant (i.e., the rainbow) as his covenantal promise to never flood the earth again. But he also established rules which were required for Noah and his descendants. The first of which was to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is a repetition of the command made to Adam and Eve, and the second was the institution of the death penalty for those that take human life. Pre-flood society was so wickedly depraved that God righteously executed his judgement upon the entire world; this post-flood covenant was given to restrain the evil of man and govern all of creation. Therefore, the Noahic covenant, unlike the Mosaic covenant which was given to a specific people for a specific purpose, was given to all mankind, as we are all descendants of Noah, in order to restrain the evil of man.
Objection 3: Human life is sacred; you cannot be both pro life and pro death penalty.
Yes, we most certainly can; God is. This objection is embarrassingly bad in its conflation of categories. There is a categorical difference between taking an innocent life and punishing an evil doer. To say otherwise would be to make God himself inconsistent. God sees no contradiction in his establishing the death penalty in Genesis 9 and establishing the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” The same God is the author of both commandments. Also, the rhetorical point of the sanctity of human life loses its effectiveness with a closer reading of Genesis 9, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
You will notice that the reason given for the death penalty in the first place is the sanctity of human life. The reason God gives for the shedding of the murderer’s blood is that God made man in his own image. It is because of the sanctity of human life that the taking of a life is met with such a harsh punishment.Therefore, the sanctity of human life is not only compatible with the death penalty but is the very reason for its establishment.
Objection 4: The Death Penalty is inconsistent with Christ’s ethic of love and forgiveness.
Connected to a deficient view of the Old Testament is a misunderstanding of the Trinitarian nature of inscripturation. Progressives like to point to Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek and forgiving those who persecute you in order to say that the death penalty is not consistent with Christian ethics.There are a few problems with this view, including misunderstanding the intended audience. The New Testament Gospels and Epistles were meant to be read by the church to instruct Christians how to live and to instruct how the Church is to be governed. It is not the Christian nor the Church’s responsibility to put murderers to death. That is the role of the government. Christians that advocate for the death penalty are not arguing for vigilante justice or a theocracy where the Church burns its enemies. You will not see New Testament instructions for Christians to execute national justice. However, Romans 13 lays out the responsibilities given to the government by God, which are to punish evildoers and to promote good (Rom 13:3-5).
Another problem with this objection is that it disconnects Christ from the Old Testament. First, Timothy says that all of Scripture is breathed out by God. The same Christ who preached about turning the other cheek and forgiving your enemies is the same God who inspired the Old Testament writers and the institution of the death penalty in Genesis 9. To put Christ’s commands at odds with the eternal law of God is to make God contradict His own words.
Objection 5: Sometimes innocent people are put to death.
This is unfortunately true and regrettable. However, this is a pragmatic objection that is not against the death penalty itself, but how it is misused. Misuse of a thing is generally not a good argument against the thing itself. Christianity and the Bible have both been misused by various groups in the past. But Christianity is true regardless of how it is misused. God instituted the death penalty for human cultures to flourish and to diminish evil. It is a moral good; its misuse is not. Therefore, these pragmatic objections while true are mainly objections against how the death penalty is applied or what counts as a legitimate burden of proof of wrongdoing in our criminal justice system.
The death penalty was instituted in Genesis 9 for all of Noah’s descendants. Its aim was to govern human society and to protect the sanctity of life. It is still relevant for societies today although it is often underused and misapplied. It is consistent both with God’s eternal law and Christ’s teachings of forgiveness.